Protecting indigenous knowledge – The key to rescuing an ancient culture?

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By Willem Wolfberry

Look for Hoodia gordonii on the Internet and you’re likely to find a wealth of information detailing the appetite suppressant qualities of a succulent plant that has taken the world by storm and, for many, has become the latest ‘bow and arrow’ in the fight against fat.

This so-called ‘modern’ miracle, however, is centuries old. It has been used for generations by indigenous people in Southern Africa – the San – to suppress their hunger while travelling for days on end in difficult terrain to source food and water for their communities.

Many argue that the money generated from the sale of Hoodia products could be enough to ensure that the San people, who have faced many challenges in the past, have the income necessary for their future survival.

But while products containing Hoodia can now be found in virtually every form, from pills to patches, and are becoming increasingly available, the role of the San people who helped unveil Hoodia to the global village still remains largely unrecognised and the people themselves uncompensated.

Joram /Useb is the Co-ordinator of WIMSA, the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa, a regional San advocacy network based in Windhoek, Namibia. He explains how the Hoodia’s hunger-suppressing properties first came to the attention of those who alerted researchers to the Hoodia gordonii’s potential. “According to historical sources, the South African Defence Force obtained the information from the San, who were using the plant to suppress hunger when they were hunting. Since then experiments have been carried out and it was found that there is an ingredient in the plant that prevents you from becoming hungry.”

The South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) based in Pretoria is one of the first organisations to conduct research on Hoodia gordonii.

Publications from WIMSA indicate that over fifty million rand was invested into Hoodia research by the CSIR, resulting in the CSIR’s licensing of the patented technology to Phytopharm, a UK-based company, for the investments necessary to further test, develop and commercialise the new resource.

According to /Useb, the American pharmaceutical group Pfizer was eventually awarded a production licence. It seemed that the San’s cure for hunger was set to make huge profits as an appetite suppressant for everyone involved except the San themselves, who had not even been informed of what had transpired.

Were it not for the South African San Institute, WIMSA and the work of a committed lawyer, the San people’s ancient know-ledge and their role in the initial discovery and development of the properties of the Hoodia might never have been recognised or acknowledged by the CSIR, or set out in a memorandum of understanding between the CSIR and the San.

The memorandum of understanding was followed by a benefit-sharing agreement stipulating that the San obtain eight per cent of all milestone payments received by the CSIR from the licensee, as well as six per cent of any royalties received by the CSIR on sales of the final product.

A second benefit-sharing agreement was also signed between the San and South African Hoodia Growers (Pty) Ltd early in February 2006.

But WIMSA Co-ordinator Joram /Useb is adamant that while one battle may have been won, the ‘Hoodia war’ is far from over, one reason being that the profit potential of Hoodia’s hunger prevention properties has done nothing to suppress the appetite of pirates and thieves for quick cash. “False products come onto the market, which puts the agreement with the San in danger, as increasing numbers of people are selling plants that are not the real thing as Hoodia gordonii. For instance, some plants look like Hoodia and belong to the Hoodia family but are not Hoodia gordonii. There are also people who steal Hoodia seeds and start plantations in their backyards. However, I’m confident that if there were stricter control, these types of problems could be avoided.”

In addition to /Useb’s concerns that thieves and pirates are completely disregarding the San’s cultural and intellectual property rights and are endangering the hard-won first agreement that started the San’s journey to economic prosperity, is the issue of the San’s image in the eyes of the world. “If people become ill because of false Hoodia products entering the market, it will be the San people who are blamed, even though they are not involved in processing the plant, and people will say that the San are liars. So we really need to take care of this. This is why the World Trade Organisation and the World Intellectual Property Organisation should be stricter about regulations. They need to follow up on these issues and establish the truth from South Africa and Namibia for a true reflection of the story.”

The image of the San is particularly important now that the indigenous San population of Southern Africa and a coalition of NGOs are urging the governments of Switzerland, Germany and South Africa to take steps against the illegal sale of Hoodia products.

WIMSA says the San base their claims on the Convention for Biological Diversity, which stipulates that indigenous groups be given a share of the profits from the commercial use of local genetic resources and traditional knowledge.

While there is no such profit-sharing for the many Hoodia products sold in Germany and Switzerland, as the Berne Declaration and the Evangelical Development Service has discovered, there is a booming market in Hoodia products in both these countries.

Since the San only have profit-sharing agreements with the licensees mentioned earlier, all Hoodia products currently sold in Germany and Switzerland violate the spirit of the Biodiversity Convention. These licensees also defy the so-called Bonn guidelines, which specifically define the obligations of user countries to prevent the unauthorised use of genetic resources in contravention to the Biodiversity Convention.

In their letter to the governments of Switzerland, Germany and South Africa, the San, represented by WIMSA and supported by the Berne Declaration (Switzerland), the Evangelical Development Service (Germany) and Biowatch (South Africa) are asking that the obligations of the Biodiversity Convention be honoured and that the countries take steps to stop the sale of unauthorised Hoodia products.

All in all, benefit sharing could be the mechanism that speeds up research into affectively fighting many of the afflictions that affect man.

If the Hoodia example serves as a case study, WIMSA Co-ordinator Joram /Useb says, it will ensure that pirates and thieves do not compromise the possible positive future relationship between the world’s indigenous people, their cultural and intellectual property rights, and the scientific community. “Maybe in the long run someone will discover plants that could be helpful in the fight against deadly diseases. People are currently working on this, and the San are happy to assist in the process because they have a sound knowledge of plants. I also strongly believe that in the near future, a discovery involving plants will lead to a treatment for HIV/Aids.”

This article appeared in the 2006/7 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.



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